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Friday, February 24, 2012

Walking on thin and rotten ice

--Or--

Be careful what you wish for - because you just might get it.

I have to wonder at the irony.  First - a bit of background:

When I graduated from high school and started college, the economic situation in North Dakota as portrayed in the local news was gloom and doom. Towns were dying. Schools were closing. Churches were burned down instead of left to rot. Farms were abandoned. Businesses were boarded up on Main Street. Young people - my friends - were leaving for population centers promising better jobs and education opportunities. Legislators and leaders - people I voted for - exclaimed that North Dakota’s Best and Brightest were leaving the state en masse. I stayed and asked them what that made me? They didn’t answer. (I didn’t vote for them again.)

North Dakota was also at the center of a national debate that started with a simple idea: if people are leaving the prairie, let’s turn it into a National Park and bring back the American Bison. The concept of a Buffalo Commons has been debated for as long as I can remember.

In January of 2008, after sending a reporter and photographer to western North Dakota, National Geographic published “The Emptied Prairie.” They took pictures of decaying farm houses crumbling into their own basements, animal skeletons bleaching on the prairie, and snow-covered gravel roads that lead beyond the horizon and off the edge of the world. They interviewed the few remaining inhabitants of such a desolate hinterland who talked of aching loneliness, torturing wind and bitter cold.

But here is the thing:

The legislators and leaders, the Buffalo Commons advocates and the National Geographic had it all wrong. So wrong.

Like true North Dakotans, the ones who stayed or came back, we dug in. We worked to diversify our economy. Still very agricultural, we welcomed and encouraged alternative energy generation, advanced manufacturing, and entrepreneurship. We poured money and effort into our main streets and tourism activities. We “value-added” everything we could in North Dakota. And it is working, for the most part. We still have a long way to go (education, conservation, native populations, infrastructure, health care), but at least we are on our way. There is just too much North Dakota Realist in me to say the state is “thriving” like many of our politicos will.

And now the irony: The Bakken

Small towns who once quietly bemoaned an inevitable fate of boarded up windows on abandoned buildings and a windswept and empty main street are telling new companies and new people to stay out. In effect, they now have what they wished for and are regretting it. By putting a moratorium on the construction of crew camps or by stopping - by passing ordinances at the city/county level - the rehabilitation of abandoned buildings on the rumor of the building being used for crew housing shows how North Dakota needs to stop breaking its own arm to pat itself on the back and get its collective head in the game. The Oil Boom is here and it is here whether North Dakota likes it or not. How we manage it will determine much of our future for the next 10, 20, 50 years. Maybe longer.
Instead of standing in the way, instead of shoving heads in the sand, instead of wailing and gnashing teeth, let’s see if we can find opportunity.

Cities and towns in The Bakken: negotiate when it comes to placing crew camps. Is there a local entrepreneur willing to open a restaurant/laundry/cleaning/security/you-name-it service in your town that will help support a growing community? Have you considered inviting the crews and companies to church? To the school? Have you considered offering “off-time” personal enrichment activities that will engage this new population and encourage them to put down roots in your dying town? Partner with Oil Companies to manage growth in your community. Reach out to neighboring communities and learn from each other, work with each other. Reach out to places like Osage, Oklahoma and small towns in Texas on the Eagle Ford Shale Fields and learn from them, too.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It isn’t. I know. But North Dakotans can do this. We don’t need politicos or magazines to tell us why or how or what. We know. We know how to work, how to stand up for what is right. We have the courage and the strength to make opportunity out of blue skies or grey. We’ve been making North Dakota home our whole lives. This is our state and our opportunity and our time to shine. Do this thing. And do it right, so that our children and grand-children can point to this time in North Dakota history and the people who made it happen as one of many reasons to be proud of living here.

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